Spending Can Be Cut Our Way, Or Europe's
Better-than-expected job growth in recent months is increasing confidence that the economy may become more robust this year. However, serious challenges remain, especially on the federal budget, that are likely to constrain the recovery. To encourage investors to take more risks, businesses to hire more workers, and consumers to spend more money, lawmakers must resolve the budget deadlock soon, and in the right way. That should include privatization of social insurance programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
Recent sharp increases in interest rates on European government debt have forced Greece, Spain, Italy, and other nations to adopt austerity policies involving deep cuts to their social insurance programs. This should serve as much-needed notice to U.S. lawmakers, especially liberal-leaning ones: If they continue to make outlandish demands for more revenue, and the policy deadlock continues until U.S. debt valuations begin to slide, it will be too late to avoid a fate similar to that of the fiscally strapped Europeans facing forced austerity policies.
Why shouldn't America just raise taxes to cover deficits that stem primarily from social insurance programs? For one thing, even the Europeans are emphasizing spending cuts. Moreover, it would be counterproductive to finance U.S. spending commitments by increasing taxes, which would require roughly doubling payroll taxes immediately and permanently.
A recent International Monetary Fund analysis shows that closing deficits by raising more revenue tends to lead to deeper recessions and slower growth. It's far better to follow the example of Canada's mid-1990s reforms, which involved just $1 in tax increases for every $7 in cuts, and which resulted in strong economic performance over the next decade.
Emphasizing tax hikes would also reinforce high levels of social insurance benefits, diminishing individual incentives to acquire skills, work, save, and invest. In a key 1937 Supreme Court ruling establishing Social Security's constitutionality, Justice Benjamin Cardozo paraphrased those opposed to the program as arguing "that aid from a paternal government may sap those sturdy virtues and breed a race of weaklings."
U.S. productivity growth weakened during the early 1970s, soon after health entitlements were established and Social Security benefits were protected from inflation. More recently, the brief productivity spurt of the 1990s information-technology shock has dwindled. America is suffering from poor skill acquisition, with education performance sliding for the past two decades; a reduced work ethic, with average weekly work hours having declined from 39 during the mid-'60s to 34 today; and saving and investment rates that have been dropping since the late '70s. The fear about our "sturdy virtues" is proving true.
Reinforcing social spending through taxes would increase the chances that, like the Europeans, we will discover such spending can't be financed by an economy of "weaklings." That would eventually force austerity measures that would amount to a backdoor privatization of social programs. That is, Americans would have no choice but to increase savings, work longer, or scale back their living standards in retirement.
Unfortunately, a long-term agreement to reduce the deficit seems unlikely this year. The failure of Congress and President Obama to achieve a deal thus far is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it signals Republicans' willingness to steadfastly reject destructive tax increases. On the other, it brings us closer to an undesirable, European-style privatization through forced austerity.
Isn't it time to think about actively privatizing our social programs to make them sustainable while we can still decide who will bear the cost?
Stimulus was Designed to Provide Pork and Payoffs, Not to Revive the Economy
Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron argued that the $800 billion stimulus package wasn’t even designed to stimulate the economy, but rather to benefit special-interest groups, since it flunked even old-fashioned Keynesian policy prescriptions about how to revive the economy. Recently-disclosed memos obtained by the New Yorker provide more evidence for this argument: “over the objection of his economic advisors, President Obama replaced $60 billion of ‘highly stimulative spending’ with a slow-spending but ‘inspiring’ $20 billion for high-speed trains and $40 billion in pork for his Senate Democratic allies. And this is starting from a point at which he knew that his advisors thought that not more than $225 billion of the $826 billion total was high-quality, fast-spending, efficient stimulus.”
This is not the only way that Obama ignored economics in favor of politics when drawing up the stimulus. Originally, economists wanted the stimulus to include the kinds of transportation spending that could boost the economy. But the stimulus package was purged of most investments in roads and bridges, and filled instead with welfare and social spending, out of political correctness, after feminist leaders complained that fixing roads and bridges would put unemployed blue-collar men to work, rather than women.
Christina Hoff Sommers points out that “of the 5.7 million jobs Americans lost between December 2007 and May 2009, nearly 80 percent had been held by men,” because men “predominate in manufacturing and construction, the hardest-hit sectors.” But when some administration officials floated the concept of “an ambitious . . . stimulus program to modernize roads, bridges,” and infrastructure as a way of “reinvigorating the hardest-hit sectors of the economy,” “Women’s groups were appalled,” denouncing “The Macho Stimulus Plan.”
The Obama administration quickly knuckled under to this pressure, resulting in a “stimulus” package that spent money instead on social services like welfare that are administered mostly by female employees. As an AP story noted “Stimulus Aid Favors Welfare, Not Work, Programs.” (The stimulus package largely repealed welfare reform).
The little “transportation” spending that remained in the stimulus package was disproportionately wasted on laying the groundwork for “high-speed” rail boondoggles that are not actually “high” in speed. These multibillion dollar rail boondoogles would provide work at inflated wages for politically-powerful unions. But these projects are expensive white elephants that would be used by very few travelers at an enormous cost per mile, and not enable trains to go anywhere near as fast as they do in Europe, Japan, or China. (Other union-backed provisions in the stimulus package wiped out jobs in America’s export sector.)
Similarly, the “green jobs” Obama promised in the stimulus package never came into being, as even The New York Times has conceded. Instead, the stimulus package’s green-jobs spending ended up inadvertently outsourcing American jobs to China. The administration’s green-energy programs also wiped out jobs in the furniture industry.
Obama relied on exaggerated claims to push through the stimulus package, claiming it was needed to prevent an “irreversible decline” in the economy, even though the Congressional Budget Office admitted that the stimulus package would shrink the economy “in the long run.” Even an old-fashioned Keynesian stimulus might have been something that America could not afford at a time of record deficits. The Congressional Budget Office, ignoring the above flaws in the stimulus package, argued that it would boost the economy in “the short run.” But even the CBO conceded that the stimulus would shrink economic output in “the long run” by increasing the national debt and thus crowding out private investment.
Not much hope for unskilled workers in America's highly efficient factories
Since at least the 1970s, when the farsighted could see the consequences of Japan’s rising manufacturing power, some observers have declared a crisis in American manufacturing, and have called for the federal government to fix it. Some suggestions, such as higher tariffs or fewer free-trade agreements, have been politically attractive but economically unconvincing. (Retreating from global trade might help save some manufacturing jobs in the short term, but at the cost of making the entire country poorer.)
Other proposals have been self-serving and unlikely to have much impact, like subsidies and tax cuts for manufacturers (the benefits of which go disproportionately to the owners of factories, not to the workers, who still must compete with legions of ever-cheaper robots).
Probably the most popular rallying cry lately has been the demand that China stop interfering with currency markets. Just about every economist would argue that China should stop artificially cheapening its currency, but getting it to do so would not dramatically increase low-skill manufacturing employment in the U.S. Most analyses show that in response to a rising yuan, American manufacturing companies would more likely shift production to other low-wage countries—like Indonesia, Bangladesh, or Mexico—than to U.S. factories.
Is there a crisis in manufacturing in America? Looking just at the dollar value of manufacturing output, the answer seems to be an emphatic no. Domestic manufacturers make and sell more goods than ever before. Their success has been grounded in incredible increases in productivity, which is a positive way of saying that factories produce more with fewer workers.
Productivity, in and of itself, is a remarkably good thing. Only through productivity growth can the average quality of human life improve. Because of higher agricultural productivity, we don’t all have to work in the fields to make enough food to eat. Because of higher industrial productivity, few of us need to work in factories to make the products we use. In theory, productivity growth should help nearly everyone in a society. When one person can grow as much food or make as many car parts as 100 used to, prices should fall, which gives everyone in that society more purchasing power; we all become a little richer. In the economic models, the benefits of productivity growth should not go just to the rich owners of capital. As workers become more productive, they should be able to demand higher salaries.
Throughout much of the 20th century, simultaneous technological improvements in both agriculture and industry happened to create conditions that were favorable for people with less skill. The development of mass production allowed low-skilled farmers to move to the city, get a job in a factory, and produce remarkably high output. Typically, these workers made more money than they ever had on the farm, and eventually, some of their children were able to get enough education to find less-dreary work. In that period of dramatic change, it was the highly skilled craftsperson who was more likely to suffer a permanent loss of wealth. Economists speak of the middle part of the 20th century as the “Great Compression,” the time when the income of the unskilled came closest to the income of the skilled.
The double shock we’re experiencing now—globalization and computer-aided industrial productivity—happens to have the opposite impact: income inequality is growing, as the rewards for being skilled grow and the opportunities for unskilled Americans diminish.
It’s hard to imagine what set of circumstances would reverse recent trends and bring large numbers of jobs for unskilled laborers back to the U.S. Our efforts might be more fruitfully focused on getting workers the education they need for a better shot at a decent living in the years to come. Subsidized job-training programs tend to be fairly popular among Democrats and Republicans, and certainly benefit some people. But these programs suffer from all the ills in our education system; opportunities go, disproportionately, to those who already have initiative, intelligence, and—not least—family support.
Those with the right ability and circumstances will, most likely, make the right adjustments, get the right skills, and eventually thrive. But I fear that those who are challenged now will only fall further behind. To solve all the problems that keep people from acquiring skills would require tackling the toughest issues our country faces: a broken educational system, teen pregnancy, drug use, racial discrimination, a fractured political culture.
This may be the worst impact of the disappearance of manufacturing work. In older factories and, before them, on the farm, there were opportunities for almost everybody: the bright and the slow, the sociable and the awkward, the people with children and those without. All came to work unskilled, at first, and then slowly learned things, on the job, that made them more valuable. Especially in the mid-20th century, as manufacturing employment was rocketing toward its zenith, mistakes and disadvantages in childhood and adolescence did not foreclose adult opportunity.
For most of U.S. history, most people had a slow and steady wind at their back, a combination of economic forces that didn’t make life easy but gave many of us little pushes forward that allowed us to earn a bit more every year. Over a lifetime, it all added up to a better sort of life than the one we were born into. That wind seems to be dying for a lot of Americans. What the country will be like without it is not quite clear.
Much more HERE
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